Walk Down Misery Street

It’s a story about the daily life of a New York drug user and how he shot morphine, smoked weed, forged prescriptions, deceived doctors, stole money from subway riders, and “pushed junk.” The author wrote from personal experience. Burroughs almost never attempted to sort out the heart of his characters in his book, though he detailed descriptions of getting high and coming down, and on the acquisition and technical aspects of using junk.

I criticized the work for its artistic shortcomings, but the “comrades” were appalled by the nonsense I spouted.

“Man, there is not a single mistake of how to use junk in this book! Do you remember how the main character chewed the ashes from his opium cigarette and then washed them down with hot coffee?”

“No, not really.”

“Peter, buddy, this means you’ve understood nothing in this book! Or maybe you read Tolstoy’s War and Peace by accident instead of Junkie?”

The homemade D. I. Y. syringes from eyedroppers, the chewing of opium ash—today, this sounds comparable to the stories of an ancient people making stone axes. But for these three old timers, this was their youth, their life.

In the long-gone Fifties and Sixties, drug addiction in the United States was considered not a disease, but a crime. Drug users were not engaged with doctors, but mainly with the police and the courts. Drug users in withdrawal at special medical stations were given weak sedatives or aspirin-like painkillers, and they were allowed to shower. The treatment ended there. Or they were sent to a psych ward where they would be strapped to the bed. But more often, they were still driven to the police station and, from there, to court.

Eventually, the first specialized drug addiction clinics began to appear.  There was new realization that substance abuse is a disease and it needs to be treated as a disease. The substance abuse care in the States was just beginning to transition from the exclusivity of law enforcement and entering the medical field. The first drug addiction clinics began to appear. The measures taken to treat patients in those first rehab clinics were, by today’s standards, draconian and resembled those used in prisons. Group therapy was more like emotional lynching. Nevertheless, this was a tremendous breakthrough in the treatment of substance abuse.4